Some places along N. Clark just scream for attention—those tiny, tucked-away restaurants that even miss most foodies' radars. Big Buns and Pita is exactly one of these primo finds. Thanks to the take-out vibe and questionable name—the phrase "big buns" alone would guarantee a walk-on-by from normal folk—the masses wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. But that's part of the beauty of the Buns.
What the layman doesn't realize is that behind the glaring sign and the fluorescent lights lies some of the best Middle Eastern food known to man. I've already been back four times after stumbling on this place a mere week and a half ago.
Here's how it happened: Plowing through Rogers Park in the middle of a hellacious rainstorm, I stopped to read the review taped to the window of this storefront. I wandered inside to find a totally empty fast food-style joint with…tablecloths? (Granted, white sheets of paper covered the linen.) I became even more curious about the food once I saw all the color photos on the take-out menu.
Once I sat down, I received a basket of warm grilled pita, a complimentary plate of hummus, pickled vegetables and a pitcher of ice water. The waitress told me the hummus was free since it was my first time, but every time I've been back, some little appetizer freebie like borek (the Middle Eastern version of an egg roll) or bright green falafel rolls out the kitchen.
My first go-round, I took one look at the photo of the Cornish hen entree and it immediately yelped my name. The bird had been hacked up into hand-size pieces, fanned out over a platter alongside a huge pile of rice and served with a bowl of lentil soup and salad. Talk about portion-friendly. I hadn't even made my way through the bowl of soup before I was stuffed to the limit. Although once my meal arrived, I had no option but to chow down. Since I was still the only customer, they treated me like royalty, and there was no way I was gonna let my captive audience down. The bird came perfectly charred bird and paired with an entrancing garlic sauce for dunking.
A few days later, an intense hankering for that blissful lentil soup consumed me. This time when I returned, I ordered up a gigantic vegetable platter: baby falafel, baba ghannouj, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, soup and salad for less than two Starbucks coffee drinks. It was highway robbery, I tell you!
I had the absolute creme de la creme this weekend: an astounding little ditty called tashreb. Imagine a glorious pound of achingly slow-cooked lamb shank tossed of top of chunks of bread that have become rich and wet from a slurpable tomato, carrot and pepper broth. This is the meal that dreams are made of, and as full as I was from my soup (plus on-the-house falafel), I couldn't stop concocting bite after bite of rice, lamb and bread. The whole thing totaled less than $10, and believe me, it would cost double the price for half the flavor anywhere else. Plus, these guys remember you every time you show up looking to get stuffed.
The Final Rave: For $1.75, you can order a pint of the addictive lentil soup to-go and have it for lunch the next day. Top it with a smear of sour cream, and you'll be in heaven.
Eat It: Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero
Another off-radar find, this tamale hut doles out bags of $1 tamales starting at the perky hour of 5 a.m. Get there early to have your pick or you're stuck with whatever's left in the pot.
Share It: Harold's Chicken Shack
This winter, this popular carry-out joint opened an outpost just across from Big Buns. Have the chicken, have the cake and have the catfish. Then just be nice and share.
Do It: N. Clark St.
Every weekend, dozens of Mexican food vendors plop in prime positions on N. Clark. They hawk tamales, fruit cups, corn on the cobs with spicy mayo and cold nieve…all the joys of summer.
Get Crazy With It: Clark St. Festival (July 14 and 15)
Everybody and their mama will have a stand at this annual food and music festival on N. Clark. You better bring the deep belly for this one.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.